Welcome to Part II of Book Country’s Ask an Editor series! Melissa Danaczko is an Editor at Doubleday, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Today, she talks about how to improve dialogue in writing, how marketability plays a role in selecting books for publication, and how editors deal with personal bias. Read Part I of Ask an Editor.
1. Is there bias when editing? When editors get content which violates them personally, does it affect their work? – Melanie Kilsby (@RealityWriter4G)
Some bias probably slips in no matter how hard you try to fight it, but as an editor your job is to help produce the best book possible while still retaining the author’s point of view and aesthetic sensibility. The way I go about this is by asking a lot of questions. It can be a lengthy back-and-forth process—but often a fun one! I’m not shy about sharing my impressions or offering suggestions, but it’s the author’s name on the book and he or she will get to make the final call. I don’t edit a ton of current affairs titles, so I haven’t been tested when it comes to working on a book asserting political beliefs that are extremely different from my own. But I think I could—as long as the research, analysis and line of reasoning were sound, fresh and forcefully presented. In cases like this, I do think it’s important to understand the book’s overall concept even if the arguments don’t perfectly line up with personal ideology. At the more extreme end of this question, if a manuscript contained content that I found incredibly objectionable for whatever reason, I probably wouldn’t be the one to take the project on in the first place. This sounds like a cop-out, but it would be difficult to edit and advocate for a book that fundamentally made me uncomfortable, and luckily, I work for a publisher where I’ve never been put in that position.
2. How much does personal taste influence an editor’s decision to support and fight for a submission, vs. the perception of marketability? – Mimi Speike
At the end of the day, publishing is a business and I’d be lying if I said marketability wasn’t a major factor in deciding to acquire a book. I think most editors have had to let go of projects they loved because they didn’t have a vision for how to publish them. I also know a lot of editors who have fought passionately for projects of this type—and have sometimes even been able to convince their colleagues to get on-board. Generally in these cases, sales expectations and the author’s advance are pretty modest, but sometimes they turn into sleeper hits or the author goes on to write another book with more commercial appeal. On the other end of the spectrum, there are instances where editors can see commercial viability but just don’t like or totally “get” a book—and turn the project down accordingly. In this way, I would say personal taste is probably even more paramount than marketability. There have been times when I’ve passed on a project that I didn’t like even though, at the back of my mind, there was a little voice saying “this could be a major bestseller.” But I wouldn’t be able to advocate for a book with the requisite level of enthusiasm if I acquired a project that I didn’t love, and I always think it’s better to let other editors or publishing houses that are 100% passionate have a go at it instead.
3. What are the most common problems that you see in dialogue? Do you have suggestions on how to correct them? – Steve Yudewitz
Very few people speak with perfect syntax or in large blocks, but a lot of dialogue is written that way. My advice is to read the dialogue out-loud and ask whether it sounds natural. The other problem I come across fairly often is a ton of exposition. Obviously, expository dialogue is an important technique when filling in narrative gaps for the reader, but when overused, can start to feel like an “info dump”—i.e. characters explain every little piece of background information in a way that feels artificial. In these cases, I think it’s good to step back and ask yourself if there’s another way to convey the background information or set the scene. The third (and probably the trickiest) problem in dialogue is that characters with wildly diverse backgrounds often sound exactly the same. I usually remove the identifying names and try to guess the speaker. If the voices are singular, you should be able to guess correctly most of the time (don’t worry if it’s not 100%). Diagnosing the problem is the easy part though, and fixing dialogue often requires major rewriting. You really have to put yourself in the mind of the characters, and even then it can be difficult to get the voice right. I think that asking friends and family members to read and weigh in is really invaluable in general, and can be a particularly effective resource for dialogue.
4. As technology continues to break down publishing barriers and flood the market with new books, how (if at all) has your process of selecting titles for your portfolio changed? – AlysArden
I wish I had a more impressive answer, but the selection process hasn’t really changed for me. I get all of my submissions from agents, but I know many literary agents are scouting self-published titles to see if they can sell promising projects to traditional publishers, so it’s very possible that one of my future acquisitions will come through this channel. It’s also possible that I’m missing out on some projects that might have been published traditionally a few years ago, but lower barriers to entry have led these authors to self-publishing. In terms of new opportunities, there is still a lot of editing, copyediting and production that goes into ebooks, but the turn-around time can be a little shorter, so I think publishers are going after highly-topical subjects in a way they might not have before. In the past, editors would also sometimes get fascinating projects that were a little too short to rightfully sell as a full-length book—but too long for an article. These lines, which were sort of artificial in the first place, are being erased. As a result, I think we’ll see more e-originals published by major imprints and the lengths will vary widely.
About Melissa Danaczko, Editor, Doubleday
Melissa Danaczko began her publishing career as an editorial assistant at Doubleday in 2006 and has gone on to develop a list that includes literary fiction, historical fiction, narrative non-fiction and popular science. Some recent titles that she’s edited include the #1 New York Times bestseller THE FUTURE OF THE MIND by Michio Kaku, New York Times bestseller THE DRESSMAKER by Kate Alcott, and Booker Finalist JAMRACH’S MENAGERIE by Carol Birch.